An Opinion on Zipcar and the Millennial ProblemS

Look closely at that image, Jalopnik. What you and I see there is a broken down, 1000$ (or less) rusted Pontiac Bonneville. They are looking at a Ferrari.

That is what every single car looks like to a Millennial.

Now, let me get started on the right foot. The 'Millennial Problem' is a term we, as automotive enthusiasts, journalists, and businessmen have given to the downward trend of new and used automobile sales among 20-30 year olds. It isn't a problem, unless you are trying to sell those vehicles, or convincing others to buy for some reason. It has nothing to do with smartphones or the internet, its not that simple. As far as I know, they haven't invented an App that can plug into your brain and alter your decision-making process yet. And I believe that this trend is the by-product of a fundamentally different approach to decision-making that is exhibited by these individuals.

This isn't a catch-all either. There are TONS of young car enthusiasts. There are probably more than in years prior! But they are a lower percentage of the population, and are curbing a market that seems to be hell-bent on endless growth. However, I find myself to be one of these individuals stuck right in the thick of an urban, car-hating society.

Despite this, there is still a very real opinion that this age group (in which I occupy) has about cars: Cars are a leech, or perhaps just a liability, that just makes you feel dirty for owning it. Sometimes, you need to own one. But you would be so much better off if you didn't have to. If you were 'some rich person' it wouldn't matter as much, but you just are not and never could be. Rich people are born into wealthy families, or get famous for music as a teenager. You're already too old for that, so since you weren't born rich, you won't be. Instead, your job is to make yourself and those around you as happy as possible. It is easier and better than doing something so irresponsible as driving a car.

Even the most expensive cars look like that image. I have had very intelligent college students ask me, after showing them images of the F12 Berlinetta's debut, 'Why are Ferraris so expensive? What makes them different from any other car?". These are physics majors. These are business majors. These are teenagers who know more mathematics, literature, pop culture, and history than some of the wealthiest individuals in the world, and a large majority of the population. They do not understand, on any level, that a car is something to aspire to have. Worst of all, they walk buy hundreds of these things every day.

Before I get into things though, I have to mention: it's perfectly fine to not want to own cars or care about them. But to stand firm in ignorance of the necessity and value they have to the society at this period in history, is a problem.

To explain why they cannot fathom why a Ferrari would cost half a million dollars for "4 doors (all cars have 4 doors, and are terrible for the environment, remember?) and gas money", I have to take you readers down an anecdote. So strap in, and hold on for dear life because this...

An Opinion on Zipcar and the Millennial ProblemS

... is the "Car World" now.

Today, I took a trip downtown with some friends. On the way I saw 2 Misubishi Lancer Evolutions (a 7 and 9) so I would say that's a successful day. But I didn't drive there, it was insisted that one of my friends use his Zipcar account.

For those that do not know, Zipcar is a "pay when you need it" car service where vehicles are placed at various parking lots around a city. They describe it as a "car sharing" system, which is a misnomer. No one owns it, no one is sharing it. It is a rental system. For a few fees, you could have a few hours of freedom from the chains of public transportation. It is the quintessential 'millennial' business. Their business model is built on Web 2.0, poor college students, and the socially-conscious urban ideal.

Now, Ford Motor Company has been pushing the Ford Focus on young buyers. In recent times, they have subsidized the use of the 2012 Focus to push the vehicle on new drivers. I wouldn't recommend reading that article I linked too far in-depth though, because they sell it on the "smartphone" connection. This is false. Young students who rarely drive (and have probably never owned a car) will not spend a half hour of their precious "zipcar time" to figure out Ford's connection system.

Thus, this is how I ended up spending an hour-and-a-half in the backseat of one of these:

An Opinion on Zipcar and the Millennial ProblemS

I was not driving, because I do not own the Zipcar account, because I believe that I should spend my money on things that last a long time for the value. In other words, since Zipcar won't let me keep the vehicle when I'm done, I don't see the point.

The drive toward downtown was crowded. It was a beautiful, wonderful saturday. I rolled my window down to enjoy the wind through my hand. I was sad to find that the safety glass and high sills prevented me from doing this comfortably. Perhaps if my shoulder was sitting about six inches higher, I could. Then something curious happened.

Looking at the other passengers, I noticed that they were acting as if the vehicle was an amusement park ride: and not a fun one. They were strapped in, enduring it with conversation and avoiding the vehicle and road around them. While I can understand it, given the drivers unfamiliarity with the car (the steering ratio on the Focus is a lot tighter than his previous vehicle, I assume, and he was over-correcting quite a bit) and the crowded freeway.

Then I realized something. I look at a car, and instead of seeing the image above, I see this:

An Opinion on Zipcar and the Millennial ProblemS

Because that is what I grew up looking at my entire life.

I was the only one who, at the spirited age of 14, drove on abandoned roads. I was the only one who always had 20 feet in front and behind me while driving, whether I wanted it or not. So for me, driving was about focusing on the car and where it is going. For them, it was dealing with the others around them. I know what it is like to sit there, both hands on the steering wheel, in the triple digits of speed. I know what it is like when your reputation, your possessions, and your self-confidence hinge on your ability to control this Mustang better than some punk-ass idiot in a Camaro next to you at the red light. I know what its like to be completely alone, detached from the world, with just two tons of metal as my only (and only necessary) companion.

Driving, for me, is rising above walking or public transportation. Or, as a good movie with a certain White Dodge Challenger once put it, "...speed means freedom of the soul."

Driving, for them, is going from one location to another, while being brought down with aggravations and concern. There was no confidence or control, and worst of all, no freedom in being inside a vehicle. I saw it as an entire city mapped out where we could go. They saw a single line that told us where we should be, if we didn't mess up.

The ride back was worse. The road was clear and free, the driver had gotten more comfortable, but the two others were even more concerned. This was because we were not using the smartphone to navigate us. I had hopped into the front passenger seat and was just giving direction with the street signs. There was a complete lack of trust in vehicles, roads, signs, and directions, and most of all, themselves.

When we ate at the restaurant, three of them ordered the same thing. They picked the Zipcar as a recommendation for their budget on the website. The restaurant was a recommendation from Urbanspoon.com. When I move into my new apartment this summer, I suggested to a roommate that they could pay me to build a bed frame. They couldn't understand how or why, because they would rather have particle-board Ikea flat-pack. It wasn't that they didn't want to risk it, they didn't even consider that it could have been a possibility.

I am older than I look. I like old things. I own old things. I am concerned with things that age and last, and I myself am often characterized as someone twice my age. Maybe not any wiser, but certainly older. Yet, I am still a part of this 'problematic' generation, even if I am a bit of an odd case. The "Millennial problem", in my opinion, can be summed as a way of dealing with choice.

Consider two scenarios where an individual is deciding between products A and B.

In scenario 1, the consumer has only the information they can deduct from the product at first glance. In scenario 2, the consumer cannot deduce anything about the product, but has a vast amount of information ready about other people's decisions.

In scenario 1, the decision-making process hinges around general knowledge about quality indicators (such as interior materials in a vehicle, panel fit, engine sound) that are obtained from observation. In this scenario, you are not comparing A and B. You are comparing A with all possible types of products like it, and B with all possible products like it. These might be the only two products in the world, but its easy to imagine a million 'fake' products that embody the continuum of characteristics between them. In this scenario however, time (the ultimate currency) is precious. It requires that the consumer has learned what defines a good product ahead of time.

In Scenario 2, however, the individual's time (while the same value) can be drastically reduced. Because the logical decision-making process is to buy whichever product sells the best already to the type of consumer they are (notice that this is not the same as the overall-best-selling product). In this scenario, you are comparing A with only B, and B with only A, and no other products. You tap into your resource (google) find out which one is recommended for you, and then you buy it. In much less time, you have made your decision.

An Opinion on Zipcar and the Millennial Problem

What does an aging business man think when he wants to get young buyers inside his store? Make a website? Sell 'younger' products? No, what you need is recommendations from other places. We wouldn't have even taken the time to go the store's website, much less the storefront itself, if it wasn't linked by another page. It doesn't matter if we can't tell if the Pizza oven is brick or a microwave. Google tells us it tastes good, and as a generation, we'd rather trust it than ourselves.

Notice how, while the consumer spent less time deciding, there was no attention drawn to the product itself. This, I think, gives some insight into the way the young generation decides whether or not to buy cars, phones, coffee, etc. While some things are trial and error, for most things we simply do not find the need to spend so much time on learning and deciding when, most importantly, few of us have the confidence in our own decisions.

We live in a golden age of advertising. This is an age where outside of specialized products or niche markets, most people buy things based on the first thing they have heard about them. This is the 'problem' with the Millenials. We are trading control and knowledge of what we buy for time-efficiency. It is not in the company's best interest to build the best product for the money, it is in their best interest to build the safest.

This decision-making process, I believe, comes from the fact that for 30 years our generation has been told that society's good is the greatest good, even if it makes you worse off. We have seen the businessman demonized, the community endeared to our hearts, and the certificate (such as a college degree) more valuable than the knowledge you are supposed to gain in the process of earning it. We don't care that Kanye West was given a Lamborghini, we care that Kim Kardashian gave him a car (which was probably a Pontiac Bonneville, for all we know).

Again, this isn't a problem. It is just a different set of parameters by which decisions are made. 100 years ago, decisions were made quite differently than they were 50 years ago. There was a time when decisions between two products had to be made based on survival instinct, fight or flight.

The same goes for choosing a job, where you want to eat, your major, etc. As time goes on, more and more people make their decisions based on recommendation, expert opinion, advertising, and branding. Smartphones and iPhone are considered interchangeable words to most people. They care about "iPhone" or "Android.". Not "Samsung Galaxy, HTC Evo, Motorola Droid RAZR or iPhone 5". I doubt most of my friends could tell me the difference between those models, because it isn't worth their time to figure it out, they assume that they will make the same decision regardless of what information they have.

I have to repeat that this isn't a problem, really, it's just a different way of making decisions. It is one that business are fully aware of. Even Google's search algorithm works on links (recommendations) and web visits.

If you want to get young people interested in automobiles, start by showing them the merits of learning how a car works. Tell them that just because consumer reports says this care is "reliable" doesn't mean it will last to 300,000 miles if you drive badly. Show them the costs of wastefulness and rash decision making. Teach them the benefits of self-improvement and deduction. Tell them its okay to want the best for yourself, and that mass opinion is not always the best one. Teach them that the world is out there to sell them something, and that if they don't want to try and fail, if they don't want to learn to get the best out of their time and money, the world is going to love them for it, and they'll be worse off because of it.

However, this isn't a huge problem when it gets down to it. Sometimes, it is more efficient to make your buying choices on recommendation. It makes no sense for me to learn how to cook a good steak (although I, personally, enjoy the knowledge) to decide which restaurant to go to. On our trip downtown, we found a great Greek restaurant tucked away off the beaten path, with an amazing atmosphere and well-priced delicious food. How did we find this treasure? The internet recommended it to us.

(EDIT: while I know some of you loved the image of the Pontiac Bonneville SSE, I had to go find some common license images for this post, and have edited it accordingly. All images are fair for commercial use now.)